Vast, timeless, and exotic, China mixes the ancient and the modern in a not-always-seamless but continuously fascinating manner. Rich in history, full of natural beauty, and constantly evolving, the country is endlessly alluring and has something for everyone. In addition, China is safe for solo female travellers and still relatively inexpensive – what’s not to love?
Start in the capital city of Beijing, home to many of the country’s best-known monuments. Ease your transition into the unfamiliar culture by visiting the Summer Palace. Its grounds cover almost 3 square kilometers and feature pavilions and temples against a backdrop of perfectly manicured lakes and gardens. Take your time touring the Forbidden City as well. The Forbidden City was once the Imperial Palace and is now a beautifully preserved site and home to a fantastic museum. For a dose of more recent history, Tiananmen Square is literally right across the street. Here you can both pay homage to the anti-communist protesters who made the square famous as well as visit the mausoleum housing Mao Zedong’s body.
Beijing also has excellent shopping, nightlight, and restaurants. Head to the hip 798 Art District, full of galleries, cafes, and trendy boutiques, and enjoy a lazy afternoon wandering about. If your budget allows, be sure to check out the Peking Opera, which puts on spectacular shows in a centuries-old tradition. Beijing is also a good base for exploring the Great Wall of China. Numerous tour operators organise everything from daytrips to multiday expeditions.
From Beijing, head south on an overnight train to Pingyao, home to the best preserved walled city in China. Rent a bike, or simply wander the car-free alleys – you’ll feel as though you have been magically transported centuries back in time. After spending a day or two soaking up Pingyao, hop on another overnight train to Xi’an. The city was the capitol of China for over 1,000 years and is home to the famous Terracotta Warriors, as well as numerous other museums and historic sites. As the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road, Xi’an is also a melting pot of cultures. Check out the Muslim quarter for delicious street food and a different perspective on China.
From here, consider a side trip to Chengdu in the west, famous for its Giant Panda reserve. Chengdu is also an excellent base for organizing trips further west into China or into Tibet. Dunhuong, once a stop on the Silk Road, is one highlight of western China. The city is home to the Mogao Caves, once a treasure trove of Buddhist art and manuscripts. Today, the caves remain picturesque and extremely enjoyable to explore. You can also organise camel treks into the surrounding desert from Dunhuong.
Even further west is the city of Kashgar. A meeting place of cultures and religions for thousands of years, you’ll enjoy wandering the city’s back alleys and traditional Muslim neighborhoods. Try to make it to the Sunday market, an experience you’ll never forget. Flying is generally the best way to make it from place to place in western China as the distances are unimaginably vast.
If your itinerary doesn’t allow you to explore western China, simply continue south from either Chengdu or Xi’an and explore the Yangtze River region. The river itself is over 6,000 kilometers long, but the most breathtaking section is far and away the Three Gorges. Take a three-day cruise from Chongqing to Yichang through a mystical landscape of fog, greenery, and mountains rising from the water. Cruise routes have changed in recent years due to the construction of a controversial damn that displaced over a million of the river valley’s residents.
Your next stop – Yangshuo – is equally scenic and awe-inspiring. Yangshuo is surrounded by twisting karst mountains, streams, and rice paddies, and you’ll enjoy relaxing in this beautiful outpost. Rent a bike and explore the countryside, go for a hike, give rock climbing a try, or simply kick back and enjoy this tranquil town.
Take a side trip via bus to Longsheng and the nearby Longji terraces (literally, Dragon Backed Mountain). This hilly, somewhat remote area is home to some of China’s most photographed rice paddies, as well as to numerous ethnic groups found nowhere else in the country.
China is the World’s second-largest country, and this is but a small sample of what awaits you. With time and money, you could spend a lifetime exploring it and still touch only the tip of the iceberg. Your first visit is unlikely to be your last as China will enchant you and lure you back again and again.
Travelling Around China
Trains and buses are the best way to experience the country. While both options cover an extensive network, trains are slightly safer, quieter, and faster with the famous bullet trains which reach speeds of nearly 200 mph and offer a wider range of options in terms of seating, meals, etc. For longer hauls, domestic flights are relatively inexpensive and can save time for travellers on tight schedules.
Renting a car is unfortunately not an easy option. On the mainland, a Chinese driver’s license is required to rent a car. If you are determined to rent a car at all costs, you can attempt to obtain a provisional Chinese driver’s license in larger cities. However, this is not recommended. Either hire a car along with a Chinese driver, or use the country’s excellent train and bus networks.
If you are looking for a recommended tour guide, interpreter, or private driver for Beijing, try Servantrip. They connect travellers with local professionals which is ideal if you are travelling alone. They also have tour guides, interpreters and private drivers in Shanghai.
From the Airport
Beijing – If you fly into Beijing, you have many options for reaching the city centre. Your least expensive option is to take a public bus, but special airport shuttles offer more options and drop-off points within the city. Airport Express trains are another option but only serve two locations within Beijing. Taxis are also relatively inexpensive, but be sure to grab one from the “official” queue or risk traveling in a vehicle with a faulty meter and paying more than you should.
Shanghai – Hongqiao airport is only 10 miles away from the city centre. The cost is approx CNY 100 and takes 25 – 40 minutes. Make sure that you take a metered taxi instead of opting for a taxi tout in the terminal which will cost double the price. Take the Subway Line 2 for just CNY 57 to People's Square then onto your destination. Buses from across the terminal.
Shanghai – Pudong airport is 19 miles from the city. Take a metered taxi for CNY 180 which takes from 45 – 90 minutes. Buses run every 20 minutes from 0730 until 2300.
How long do I need?
Ten days is the minimum you’ll need to begin exploring China. In this amount of time, you can visit Beijing and its attractions, see the Great Wall, and make quick side trips to one or two other nearby cities. To really explore China, set aside at least three months, especially if you intend to venture into western China.
Travelling Overland from China
Many of China’s neighbors – for example, Myanmar, Pakistan, and North Korea – likely have quite stringent visa procedures).
- Is tipping expected? Tips are generally not expected (and may even be refused). Exceptions include hotel porters, and tour guides (especially on multi-day tours).
- Fixed price or barter? Expect fixed prices for hostels, rooms, and hotels. Bargaining is acceptable at markets and in family-owned shops, while larger stores have fixed pries.
- Any ATMs? ATMs are available in larger towns and cities, as well in popular tourist destinations. Be sure to keep some cash on you, as credit cards are not accepted everywhere in China.
- Which side of the road do they drive? The right-hand side.
- Good for vegetarians? China can be hit-or-miss for vegetarians. In larger cities and popular tourist areas, you will likely be able to find good vegetarian options. In more out-of-the-way places or “locals-only” restaurants, you may experience difficulties communicating your needs due to the language barrier. Many so-called “vegetarian” dishes may contain fish or meat stock, and locals may be baffled as to why you choose not to eat meat. Buddhist temples sometimes have vegetarian-only restaurants attached to them, and these can be wonderful options.
- Any seven wonders of the world? The Great Wall of China.